People, Places, Dates

History and Archaeology are full of important people, places and dates. Here are some of the most important people, places and dates in the History of Essex.
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Famous People

Matthew Hopkins

In the later medieval period, religion was very important and most people were very superstitious. When things went wrong, like animals or children dying, or milk going off, it was blamed on the devil’s work. Later, certain people became associated with such events, and as rumours began to grow, accusations of witchcraft began to surface.

The craze for witch hunts in the UK never reached the proportions it did in Europe, where hundreds of people were burnt at the stake for witchcraft, but Essex saw some witch trials for example at St. Osyth.

Matthew Hopkins, calling himself the “Witchfinder General” was the source of many of these trials. He was responsible for between 200 and 400 prosecutions in Essex and the rest of East Anglia. He was born in Manningtree, and many trials took place on his home turf around Manningtree, Mistley and North East Essex. Many of the witches he prosecuted were imprisoned in Colchester Castle.


Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth made a famous speech at Tilbury


Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was a soldier and politician who rose to fame during the English Civil War. Amongst the other Parliamentarians, he held more extreme views on religion and politics. Cromwell rose to power partly because he was an excellent general, and put together the New Model Army. Having the support of the army strengthened his position, but it could also make things more difficult because the army needed payment and wanted to have a say in politics as well – if they rebelled, which they did, the country could be in serious trouble.

Cromwell’s other strength was that he was seen as having more radical religious views, being a Puritan (an extreme Protestant), and he had the support of many of the radical religious groups. Again though there were two sides to this; these groups could also put pressure on Cromwell and it was probably a combination of pressure from these groups which ensured that Charles I was executed, when most of Parliament did not think this should happen.

When the King was executed Cromwell was offered the title of King but he did not want it. Instead he was made “Lord Protector” and he spent most of the rest of his life trying to create a Parliament which could guide the country in the right direction politically and religiously – he never succeeded. Unfortunately his son Richard was not as able as his father and when Cromwell died, Richard was deposed and Charles II was restored to the throne.

Many historians have questioned what Cromwell was really like, whether he really thought of himself as “God’s Englishman”, or whether he was simply a political opportunist. Whatever the truth, he was certainly a very able politician and general, and played a pivotal role in the transformation of England’s government during the end of the 17th century.


King Charles I

Charles I came to power in 1625 on the death of his father, King James I (James is known as “James I of England, VI of Scotland”, because he was the first King to rule over England and Scotland together). Charles, James’ second son, had not been prepared for Kingship, as he was not expected to be King, but his older brother Henry died in 1612 making Charles the heir. What he inherited mostly, however, was an enormous debt and a country in the midst of religious turmoil.

Charles was a reserved character, with a love of art, and a lifestyle which quickly overstepped his means. When his father died, England was on the brink of war with Spain, and unsuccessful, and expensive, conflicts with the Spanish, French, Dutch and Scots were to dog Charles’ reign. Charles’ choice of wife, the French Catholic Henrietta Maria, was also unpopular, and many people suspected her of plotting against the King or against the country.

Charles’ main problems were twofold; firstly, his habit of picking advisors who were very unpopular, like the Duke of Buckingham, Archbishop Laud and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (known at the time as “Black Tom Tyrant”). Secondly, Charles favoured a High Anglican form of worship, with lots of ritual, when most of his subjects were Protestant or Puritan. They saw his reforms of the church as a move towards Catholicism and many people became suspicious that this was all part of a “Papist plot”.

Eventually in 1649, after 7 years of civil war and turbulence, the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell, put Charles on trial. To general surprise and shock, Charles was found guilty of treason and beheaded. All was not lost though, as his wife and son had escaped and, a mere eleven years later, Charles II would be restored to the throne of England and Scotland.

Important Places

Tilbury Fort

Defences along the coast of Essex have always been important, from the Martello towers designed to discourage an invasion from Napoleon Bonaparte, to the many pillboxes and World War Two defence stations built along the coast in more recent times.

The amazing geometric fort at Tilbury was built as part of a programme of improvements to defences along the Thames, following an attack by the Dutch in 1667 in which many ships were lost. The fort continued in use right up until the late 1800s, although by this time the emphasis had moved to the nearby Coalhouse Fort.

It was near here, about a hundred years before the fort was built, that Queen Elizabeth I addressed her troops on the eve of the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada. Tilbury Fort is now in the care of English Heritage and is open to the public.

Important Events

The English Civil War

Charles I’s father, King James, allowed religious toleration, but the Catholic plot to kill him, known as the gunpowder plot, encouraged him to place greater strictures on Catholics. Although an otherwise able King, he was unable to manage his finances and, like his son, spent most of his reign in dispute with his Parliaments.

Charles was not a popular King. He levied high taxes, argued with his parliament and had a French Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria. His religious views were very unpopular, as people thought he was too close to being a Catholic, and at the time most of the country held broadly Protestant views. In 1638 he attempted to impose a Common Prayer Book on the whole country, and this led to war with the Scots. War is a very expensive process, and Charles was forced to call Parliament to get more money, but they demanded concessions in return. Charles’ response, typically, was to disband Parliament.

Historians do not always agree on whether the main cause of the Civil War was political or religious, but whatever the causes, Charles and his parliament were unable to agree and events finally came to a head in 1642 when the English Civil War began. Royalists (known as Cavaliers) loyal to the King flocked to his banner, while Parliamentarians (known as Roundheads) loyal to Parliament flocked to theirs. Often families were divided by their loyalties.

From early on in the war, Parliament had all the advantages, and eventually in 1646 Charles was forced to flee into the hands of the Scots, who sold him back to Parliament. Charles failed to keep his word to behave peaceably, though, and further conflict followed in 1648. He was eventually brought to trial and beheaded in 1649, and although he was not a popular king, there was little support for his execution.


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